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One person was killed and more than 100 were injured in 1995 when the Amtrak Sunset Limited derailed southwest of Phoenix. (Photo: FBI)

Unsolved Arizona mystery: Who derailed the Sunset Limited?

Amy B Wang, The Republic

It remains one of Arizona’s most enduring unsolved mysteries.

In the earliest hours of Monday, Oct. 9, 1995, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited train sped westward through the Arizona desert, bound for California. Some 70 miles southwest of Phoenix, around 1:30 a.m., it lurched violently. Eight passenger cars derailed, and four fell off a bridge and into a dry river bed, according to reports at the time.

The crash killed one person, an Amtrak employee, and injured 78 others. Investigators would later find unmistakable signs of sabotage, along with cryptic notes that railed at the government. They vowed to find whoever was responsible.

Two decades later, the case is still open.

 ‘Oh my God. I’m holding a note from people who intentionally just tried to kill everybody on this train.’Neal Hallford had boarded the Sunset Limited two days before, in San Antonio. It would have been much faster to fly to San Diego, where his then-girlfriend lived, but he opted to take Amtrak instead.

“At the time I was having a real problem with plane phobia,” Hallford said.

For Hallford, the train trip had proved so far uneventful, if restless. A crying baby in an adjacent compartment had made it difficult to sleep the night before, he remembered. Shortly after midnight on Oct. 9, 1995, he finally drifted to sleep.

At about 1:30 a.m., a loud crashing sound jolted Hallford awake as he was thrown into the seat in front of him. His dinner tray table was still down and it jammed into his ribs. The train had come to a halt; the cars had gone pitch black. Passengers would later learn that the engine had separated from the rest of the compartments. For the time, though, Hallford could only hear other riders shouting through the dark, trying to figure out what had happened.

“After a short while, a steward from the railroad came out,” Hallford said. “He let us know that the train had derailed.”

The Amtrak representative told passengers that they may need to start bringing injured people to the back of the train — and asked everyone to stay inside, Hallford remembered. It was dark outside, and there were scorpions and snakes in the desert.

As they sat in the dark, the unhurt passengers near the rear of the train had not yet seen the scene that was splayed across the desert gulch ahead.

The train’s two engine cars had jumped the tracks. The rest of the Sunset Limited jackknifed in the middle, silver passengers cars with panoramic windows toppling out into the dark. Eight cars derailed; four had fallen 30 feet from a trestle bridge. The worst lay on their sides, shattered.

The crash killed one person, an Amtrak sleeping-car attendant named Mitchell Bates.

Back in the intact cars, most people heeded the steward’s advice for about an hour, Hallford said, before conditions on the train “were becoming rather unlivable fairly quickly.” The air-conditioning had gone out and the toilets were no longer flushing. Getting hot, Hallford decided to get some fresh air outside of the train car.

He stepped out of the right side of the train and walked around, trying to get a better sense of what had happened to the rest of the cars ahead. About 12 feet from the rail, under the light of the moon, Hallford spotted a piece of paper under a rock.

“I wasn’t thinking anything sinister at the time,” Hallford said. “I was just thinking, this is a little odd … for this piece of paper to just be laying out there in the middle of nowhere.”

He took the note out from under the rock and scanned its typewritten message.

“I read the first two or three lines of what’s in this note, and I go, Oh. My. God,” he said. “I’m holding a note from people who intentionally just tried to kill everybody on this train.”

‘We contacted every ambulance company in the Phoenix metropolitan area’

About 50 miles away, earlier in the evening, Pat Borree had been settling into her graveyard shift as a dispatcher for the town of Buckeye. She had moved her family to the tiny farming community in 1980, when it had one traffic light (later two) and a population of about 5,000.

“It was a very, very quiet town,” Borree said. She had worked as a Buckeye dispatcher for 10 years, and the overnight shift was nothing new to her — on that night, she was training a new dispatcher. The most eventful calls to come in then were usually about barking dogs or someone having a heart attack.

Shortly after 1:30 a.m. on Oct. 9, 1995, Borree received a call from a Maricopa County sheriff’s deputy. There had been a train derailment, he told her. The location was unclear — maybe somewhere near Tonopah — but Buckeye would likely be the closest town. Since the Buckeye Fire Department was made up of volunteers, he suggested she start giving them a heads up.

“That was my first time paging out all of the fire departments at one time,” Borree said. “They all thought I lost my mind.”

Borree handed her trainee a list of area hospitals and told her to prepare them for a possible influx of patients. When it became clear later how inaccessible the crash site was, Borree dialed Buckeye farmers with special grading equipment: Could they grade makeshift roads to reach the train?

“It was just calling on farmers, other agencies,” Borree remembered. “We contacted every ambulance company in the Phoenix metropolitan area because at that point we still didn’t know how many people would need to be transported … And that’s what was really amazing about the whole incident because the whole town just came together on that.”

Pierce Aviation, a tiny air strip nearby, volunteered to open as a refueling spot for helicopters, Borree said. The critical incident command center from Luke Air Force Base set up a triage center at the derailment site. The area was so remote that firemen had to be stationed along the way to direct ambulances in the dark.

‘It’s in the middle of nowhere’

The derailment of the Sunset Limited would be widely covered by the media. This was well before Sept. 11, 2001, but only a few months after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The mysterious notes found at the crash site only fueled the fervor: Neal Hallford ultimately discovered two notes under rocks around the crash site, which he reported to authorities that day. In addition, investigators reportedly found two additional notes. In all of them, a group claimed responsibility for the sabotage and berated the government’s involvement in federal standoffs at Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

The group, the notes said, was called “Sons of the Gestapo.”

For weeks, investigators scoured the derailment site and surrounding area for clues, interviewing hundreds of people and tracking thousands of leads. An early theory held that whoever was responsible must have had some knowledge of train operations. Investigators discovered someone had pulled 29 spikes from the track and forced the rails apart, installing a metal plate with spikes to prevent the tracks from reconnecting. Whoever did so also used jumper wire to bypass a computer system that would have warned train engineers of track failures, according to reports at the time.

But who did that, and why, was less than clear.

People who researched domestic extremism said they had never heard of “Sons of the Gestapo.” Doubts surfaced that it was an established militia group, and investigators began to wonder if the notes — and the group — were intentionally misleading.

In 20 years, authorities also have never linked the Amtrak derailment with any other terrorist attack.

The FBI’s head agent on the case today said he could not comment on whether that theory remained true, but noted that even today, the crash site is extremely isolated. Whoever accessed it likely was familiar with the area, said Michael Lum, an FBI special agent.

“It’s one of those places that if you didn’t know how to get there, you’d get lost. It truly is,” Lum said. “It’s in the middle of nowhere, even today.”

Nowadays, driving to the crash site from Buckeye would take about an hour — and that’s on much-improved roads.

“Back in the day, you actually would have gotten out there numerous times otherwise you would have gotten lost,” Lum said. “The individual or individuals would have been in a rush to get out of there.”

Amtrak declined to talk about the investigation and provided a written statement for the anniversary of the crash.

“The Amtrak Police want justice for Amtrak employee Mitchell Bates and are still stricken and outraged by this senseless loss of life,” a company spokeswoman said in an e-mail. “Amtrak continues to search for those responsible … who perpetrated this offense.”

‘I wish they had caught somebody’ 

On the night of the derailment, Borree worked through the night as rescue vehicles rolled on and on.

“I was supposed to get off at 6 a.m,” Borree said. “I don’t think I got home until about 11 in the morning.”

She had just climbed into bed when the police chief called, asking her to go back to the station. The Los Angeles Times wanted to interview her, he said.

“I was so tired. It was like, LA Times? Who’s LA Times?” she said. “Do I need to put my uniform on or can I just wear my T-shirt and jeans?”

The next morning, officials prepared to drag the upright four cars of the Sunset Limited back to Phoenix so that uninjured passengers could be rerouted. Investigators asked Hallford if he would remain at the site for questioning about the notes he had found. He agreed — and remembers feeling remarkably alone as he watched his fellow passengers depart, leaving him in the desert surrounded by dozens of law-enforcement agents.

Hallford wound up riding in a car back to Phoenix later, where a hotel had been set up as a crisis center. Miraculously, he beat the Sunset Limited passengers, who were still slowly making their way back to Phoenix. Dozens of reporters were at the hotel, Hallford recalls, waiting for the survivors of the derailment to return. Feeling exhausted, he slipped unnoticed into the hotel.

He spoke to Amtrak representatives who would send him to San Diego via Greyhound bus. Hallford wouldn’t speak publicly about the accident until 2001, when a BBC documentary crew contacted him.

Borree went on to work as a dispatcher for Buckeye for seven more years, retiring in 2002. Though she remembers clearly the night of the derailment, she said the case had not lingered on her mind. She simply assumed that it had been solved long ago.

For Hallford, the crash has remained something he has recalled regularly over the past two decades. In 2012, he self-published a book about his experience on the train, The Derailment of the Sunset Limited. He also maintains a Facebook page with any news about the incident. It has been sparse.

“I wish they had caught somebody,” Hallford said. “It’s just weird and surreal that it’s gone this long without anything solid, without any suspects arrested.”

Earlier this year, the FBI announced it would offer a $310,000 reward — $250,000 from the FBI, $50,000 from Amtrak and $10,000 from the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office — for information that leads to an arrest and conviction in the 20-year-old case. Multiple agencies are now involved in the investigation.

“As far as where it’s come, we’re making progress,” Lum said. “People have been coming forward. We just need that little piece to get us over the edge.”

The fact that two decades have passed has worked against them, Lum added, but he said the FBI will continue to pursue the case no matter how much time has gone by.

“We’re not going to quit. We’re never going to go away. We’re going to keep investigating this until it’s solved,” he said. “There was an individual killed … We’ll investigate it until we get justice for Mitchell.”

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